Clear the Obstruction

A Tactical State of Origin Preview

State of Origin is intriguing for several different reasons; the history, the tribalism, the spectacle, but also the technicalities of the game itself. Origin is the highest-quality Rugby League we see each year with many of the NRL’s best players split relatively evenly across two teams with incredible motivation underpinning their performance. Often lost in all the hype every year is the conceptual and technical reasons why a state was victorious, so with that in mind lets look forward to this years State of Origin series, and what likely holds the key to victory for both states.

The Left Side

Without hyperbole, the left side attack for both teams is crucial in this series. As a generalisation, in modern Rugby League the left-side of the field in attack is the most important – Jason Oliver from StatsInsider recently catalogued where NRL teams concede tries – be it on the right, left or middle of the field, and found that 43.8% of all tries are conceded by the right-side defence being generated by opponents left-side attack as opposed to 24.6% in the middle and 31.5% on the left. There are a couple of theories why this is the case, to start with most humans (between 70-95%) are right-handed and as a result are more adept at passing right-left, where the right-hand generates most of the power as opposed to left-right. As a function of this players might feel more comfortable running a left-sided attacking set, or perhaps left-sided sets are better executed, passes are quicker, sharper and more accurate. While this could explain some of the left-sided preference, I think it’s largely as a function of how most modern offences are conceptually aligned. In most attacks, the halfback plays on the right, while also drifting in and controlling the middle, with the five-eighth usually exclusively parked on the left-edge. As a result, left-side plays are more frequent, often involving big attacking sweeps with the halfback as first-receiver and the five-eighth and fullback staggered and sweeping behind the play. This is the most common goal line set: 7-6-1 with decoy options through the line like this one from the Bulldogs last weekend;  

Here are the left-side attacks for both Queensland and New South Wales moving from right-left

Cherry-Evans – Kaufusi – Munster – Ponga – Morgan – Oates

Cleary – Cordner – Walker – Tedesco – Mitchell – Addo-Carr

We could analyse each individual player on both sides, but it’s probably not necessary. They’re both filled with enigmatic offensive players all with the individual potential to generate line-breaks for themselves or others. Their individual talent is not as important as how they manage to combine in this series.

For New South Wales, how they structure their left-side attacking sets will be fascinating and while it looks potent on paper, games aren’t played on paper and potential. Last year Maloney tied that left-side together nicely through early-ball to Mitchell and Tedesco off the back of quick play the balls and service from Cook. That role is now occupied by Cody Walker, who for the Rabbitohs plays much wider and is less involved in facilitating structure on the edge, used more as a sweeping receiver from plays generated from Cook and Reynolds. Cody Walker’s ball-playing statistics suggest he is exceptional at putting teammates through the line, but it’s important to recognise where those plays were generated, he is an exceptional play-finisher but those opportunities often originate from closer in-field.

Moving Walker in-field to fill this gap will be a waste of his skillset as a sweeping runner, for NSW to reach their potential on the left edge Cook and Cleary have to take responsibility for the initial shape. That role is not unfamiliar for Cook, who will often drift from dummy-half on the goal-line as a pseudo-halfback, but it might be unfamiliar for Cleary who has often relied on a second half to take charge of the opposite side. Cleary will have to operate and control both edges of the attack in order to get the ball sharply to the left-edge where Walker and Mitchell can contribute as wide ball-runners. They also have the option of getting Tedesco involved closer in-field which could help give Walker and Mitchell more space in attempt to not overcrowd the left edge. I have some concerns about how Mitchell and Walker can combine given they often operate in similar spaces for their NRL teams, but trying to open-up that left side by having Tedesco work closer in-field could alleviate those problems and potentially give Addo-Carr more room to wheel away in an overlap. How this edge operates will be the bellwether for the Blues in this series, and it could be high-variance – if they’re able to position Walker and Mitchell in space with a sliding defence they’ll consistently generate points, if Cleary and Cook are unable to consistently provide that side with opportunities it could become over-crowded with awkward spacing.

Queensland have similar questions plaguing their left side despite being arguably more balanced. Cherry-Evans is familiar in playing as a dominant half who actively engages both left and right edges and Ponga is predominantly a left-side player with exceptional vision and a bullet right-left pass as seen in the below footage of his return to fullback earlier this season:

How they stagger their plays will be important, Munster is a devastating runner but is forced to be the predominant left-side playmaker for Melbourne through necessity, where he normally receives an early ball and drifts across the edge. Using Munster in this role for Queensland could be a mistake, Cherry-Evans will control the area close to the ruck and Ponga’s ability to engage the second-row defender and generate opportunities is without peer, especially given how he was able to roast Tyson Frizzell in an earlier game this year against the Dragons at Mudgee

Having the Munster-Morgan-Oates combination outside of Kalyn could be dynamic and plays to the strengths of Munster and Morgan who are both active hole-runners with instinctual passing games. I fear for Queensland if they elect to use a more traditional shape with Munster playing inside the sweeping Ponga, he can often hold the ball in search for his own run and force the play to break-down behind him. This works well for the Storm who rely on Munster to generate opportunities, but with Ponga on the left-edge this could be a waste of both players skillsets.

Contact & Territory

The importance of winning field-position through generating metres and pushing the advantage-line at contact is well-established in Rugby League and will be vital in this series. The interesting aspect is how statistical analysis differs from the public perception of who will likely win this facet of the game.

Here is the run-metre breakdown for all 3 games last series:

 Game 1Game 1Game 2Game 2Game 3Game 3
TeamQLDNSWQLDNSWQLDNSW
Runs158190173177197169
Run Metres165016821632140917451416
PCM538566495477437382
Metres per Run10.48.859.437.968.868.38
PCM per Run3.412.982.862.692.222.26

Despite the hoopla generated from the media about the dominance of New South Wales, this was not supported by key metrics last year. Queensland were in total a net +520 in Run Metres and a +45 in PCM for the series, they generated more metres per run in all 3 games, and outperformed NSW in PCM per run in all but game 3. Queensland won both the territory and contact battle last year. While there are different players in both teams heading into this series they are similar enough for this to be statistically relevant.  While this is only a 3-game sample it’s possible the dominance of this New South Wales team and their ability to generate metres has been exaggerated. It’s an area that will be interesting to monitor as the series progresses and while many pundits are citing the dominance of key forwards as the reasoning behind a projected NSW victory, this could be folly.

Defence

Defence is a difficult aspect of the game to project and is reliant on several factors; motivation, fatigue, positioning – but there are some metrics which are helpful in quantifying defence. I’ve spoken about Defensive Efficiency % previously in this post about edge defenders, but as a quick recap it compares 5 key defensive areas; tackle attempts per minute, missed tackled per attempt, ineffective tackles per attempt, one-on-one tackles per attempt and penalties per attempt – given as a percentage on the average for their position. DE% has a track-record of identifying above and below average defensive players, however like any capture-all metric it can be noisy.

Through compiling the DE% for all Origin players we can construct a heat-map to help identify the positioning of defenders and their quality. It’s important to note that for some positions; wing, centre and halves, DE% does not include penalties and ineffective tackles per attempt due to sample size issues. Red reflects poor defenders, green good.

NSW Defensive Heat Map:

The DE% ratings of the New South Wales’ edge defending Queensland’s left-side attack is the most glaring part of their heat-map, specifically Josh Morris. Morris has missed 31.92% less tackles per attempt than the average for centres while completing 82.96% more one-on-one tackles which has largely contributed to his excellent DE%. This is why he’s been selected on this NSW right-edge, to defend a potent part of Queensland’s offence –  Munster and Morgan. The two defenders on either side of Morris; Cotric and Cleary are both rated as excellent defenders for their positions also. The performance of Tyson Frizell defensively will be the most important factor for this side of the Blues defence, if Frizell fails to consistently diffuse raids down this side of the field his outside defenders will fail, regardless of their defensive quality. This again highlights the need for Ponga to play outside Cherry-Evans and the 2RF to try and isolate Frizell as much as possible. An interesting part of this cat-and-mouse will be how Frizell adjusts if Ponga does occupy that role, if he tries to close-down the angle before Ponga receives the ball it could open a space for Cherry-Evans to hit his Second Row Forward from a short pass.

Queensland Defensive Heat Map

For Queensland the heat-map is less convincing. On the left-hand side they have adequate defenders, including the best edge-defender participating in Origin, Matt Gillett. The middle and left side is significantly less convincing. Queenslands middle is brought down significantly by key forwards performing poorly in DE%, namely Dylan Napa (-162.16%), Josh McGuire (-69.8%) and Joe Ofahengaue (-65.48%). Queensland’s right-side defence is interesting, Felise Kaufusi despite rating as the 4th best edge-defender by DE% last season has quietly performed well below average on this season. Every defensive indicator has decreased – his tackles per minute have reduced, his misses and ineffects per attempt and have increased with no noted change in 1-on-1 completions. While the Blues instinct will be to funnel traffic to the left, where they have offensive weapons, it’s interesting to wonder whether targeting the right could be more successful where Kaufusi and an out-of-position Morgan will be defending. New South Wales’ game-plan is geared around targeting ruck-defenders with Cook and Tedesco operating from dummy-half and Queensland’s middle defence looks understandably shaky however Arrow (20.27%), Hunt (36.71%), Papalli (16.33%) and Fifita (93.27%) are all listed as above-average defenders. Walters bench rotation will be vital, he struggled last year often allowing lazy ruck defenders like McGuire and Napa to play long minutes in the middle. Thankfully two of the poorer defenders in Napa and Ofahengaue are both coming off the bench unlikely to play long fatiguing minutes and with an adequate rotation they could avoid catastrophe.

Series Prediction: Queensland

These two teams are reasonable matched, both of which have potential paths to victory. Playing Game 1 in Brisbane and Game 2 at a neutral venue is advantageous for Queensland and offensively they could have more effective options, especially down the left-edge isolating Ponga on Frizell. The dominance of the NSW forward pack might be overstated and the balance of the Blues left-edge offence could be a delicate balancing-act. While New South Wales can generate opportunities through the middle, an adequate forward-rotation from Queensland could stifle that aspect of the game and their offence could be high variance pending how particular combinations perform together.